Top Democratic senator unveils his own populist prescription to the age of Trump

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio on Friday outlined what he billed as a counter to President Donald Trump’s brand of populism that helped him break through the Democratic Midwestern “blue wall” and capture the presidency.

In a speech titled, “Working too hard for too little: A plan for restoring the value of work in America,” Brown presented an economic platform — one on which he’s built up credibility as one of Congress’ most left-leaning members — that captured a similar tone Trump was able to use successfully in winning over a larger portion of the working-class vote than prior Republican nominees.

“What has changed is that people no longer see a path to get there through hard work — and they’re right,” Brown said at Ohio State University in Columbus, later adding that “hard work doesn’t pay off like it used to.”

“Politicians in Washington too often rely solely on the unemployment rate to measure how the economy is doing,” he continued. “The unemployment rate is one thing, but whether workers have jobs that pay a decent wage and provide security is another. And the unemployment rate certainly doesn’t reflect the frustration, the worry, the anger, the pain that workers feel.”

The Ohio senator took aim at wage stagnation and declining benefits for workers.

“People earn less, people can’t save for retirement, and people feel less stable — all while working harder and producing more than ever before,” he said. “Work has changed significantly in this country. Compared to 50 years ago, people do different jobs in different ways.”

Brown’s address urged for a more inclusive form of economic populism than Trump’s, while he sought to appeal to Americans who he said feel that the modernisation of various sectors of industry and the growing “gig” economy have left them behind.

“That’s what this plan is for — to make life better for all workers,” he said. “Every single one of them. That is the heart of populism. Populism is for the people — not these people, or those people, but all people. It is not about appealing to some by pushing others down. It’s about lifting everyone up.”

“When we talk about work, we talk to everyone,” he later added. “When we restore value to work, we will make our country a better place for every single American. That’s what this plan aims to do.”

Brown has spent years railing on the same trade agreements at which Trump took aim during his campaign and in the aftermath of his shocking electoral victory. He said those deals are a “major part of the problem” with the current state of the American economy, adding that the government needs to “change the way we think about” it.

Brown made a number of progressive pitches, including a call to raise the minimum wage to $US15 an hour, expand retirement savings options and the collective bargaining rights of union, and plans to target employers who “misclassify” workers to avoid paying taxes and overtime wages.

“Work unites all of us,” he said. “As Pope Francis teaches us, ‘We don’t get dignity from power nor money or culture. We get dignity from work.’ Some of the ideas I’ve laid out are new. Others, we have talked about before, but haven’t laid out as part of a broader agenda to restore the value of work for all Americans.”

“We need to rethink how we talk about the economy,” he continued. “Instead of individual solutions to niche problems, we need to offer universal solutions to a universal problem — the declining value of work. That’s what this plan is for — to make life better for all workers. Every single one of them.”

Brown was frequently mentioned as a possible running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton before she settled on Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. Brown’s speech coincided with his release of a 77-page economic plan.

Democrats like Brown have begun formulating an economic message to more effectively counter Trump. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told Business Insider in a recent interview that the party needs to have much stronger economic ideals to win at the polls in 2018 and 2020.

“Stuff that people can envision and we can deliver,” he said. “I’ve spent 10 years in the Senate now, and the talk about messaging is making me increasingly insane. I don’t think you earn the right to a message until you’ve earned it by having a real fight, really being willing to stand up for what you believe in.”

“And to constantly be jumping from message point to message point, positioning yourself on issues without ever taking a step back, deciding what the hell you’re going to do, and jamming it through as best you can, or at least making it one hell of a big fight so that everyone in the country knows that it took place, I think is a mistake,” he added.

Brown, who’s hammered away on his more populist economic message for years, could be in good position himself to make a run for the White House in 2020. He is up for reelection in Ohio — a state Trump won — in 2018.

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